On Sept. 14, I received this email:
I’m on the editorial staff of the VoyageChicago Magazine and I’m working on interviews with hidden gems from Chicago and the surrounding areas. [Name withheld] thought you would be a great fit for our Thought-Provokers series.
We’re excited to learn more about you and share your story with our readers. There is no cost involved, but we’ll of course need some of your time for the interview. Please let me know if you would be interested in being featured.
529 S Broadway STE 4005
Los Angeles, CA 90013
VoyageChicago.com | Preferences
It felt like an honor, but I soon realized that this PR opportunity wasn’t about me at all. Many of many friends and colleagues also received the same email. Some were sent by Brown; others were sent by a Naomi Hoke, Grace Samolde, Meryll Galino and/or Emma Scott, among others. They were received by fellow artists, colleagues and friends in Miami, Phoenix, Dallas, San Diego, Houston, Atlanta and LA.
Soon, I received this reply:
Great! You can find the questions I’ve prepared for the article here:
You’ll need one good personal photo and a few (say 4-8) other relevant images – so I’d recommend collecting those before starting the questionnaire. Timing-wise, we’d appreciate if you could have this back to us within 2 weeks.
If you have any questions, let me know. Have a great day! :)
Given that I saw at least a half-dozen friends, colleagues and fellow artists posting their VoyageChicago.com articles via their own social media, I proceeded to use the form to submit my responses to their questions. As instructed, I included a personal photo and eight other photos showing me in action. I also included upcoming events and links to project donation forms. If it could help the work I do, why not?
I also very carefully thought through my responses to their questions on personal artistic practice and my suggestions for what I think artists need. I supplied social media handles and relevant websites for projects but skipped the fields for my personal address or phone number — I thought that was weird. The questionnaire asked for the names and contact information for five other artists that I would recommend. I thought twice, but provided it anyway.
The next morning, I felt queasy. The frequency of published “interviews” on the website was concerning. In fact, the website itself was confusing, along with the lack of branding clarity. It seemed odd that the company, Voyage Media, was based in LA. The website has an About page, but I couldn’t find a standalone URL for Voyage Media; I did discover that there’s a CA-based film-video production company of the same name. And that a Beijing Voyage Media Co., Ltd., launched in 2009 and specializes in “online advertising services.” The Twitter page for VoyageChicago was last updated in early 2017 with an entire retweet feed. The Twitter page for a sister site, BostonVoyager, was last updated in 2016. As for Roger Brown, I couldn’t find him anywhere; his signature line didn’t list a phone number.
Then Maya Erdelyi, a Boston-based artist, became the first person in my professional circle to sound an alarm. From her, I received this email:
Early yesterday morning… I was alerted to [a] Reddit article by my husband. This Boston Voyager thing had been a topic of discussion for some time as I had been approached twice but felt there was something off about it. The Reddit article confirmed my suspicions. And I felt the need to let folks know on Facebook.
Then my good friend Amanda Lichtenstein shared the Reddit article Maya was referencing. The headline: “Artists Beware: BostonVoyager is not Boston-based, or US based, run by bots and worse. Do not give them your information.” There are more than 100 comments. Amanda also shared, via Facebook, a post on the website of a composer-performer, Greg Nahabedian, called “I Pulled My Boston Voyager Interview.” His post ends with this:
…what’s actually happening when they ask you to give them email addresses of others they should talk to (the questionnaire actually won’t submit without FIVE of these responses) they’re just getting you to do their work for them. The Boston Voyager SHOULD be a publication that’s supporting its community, and that means actually going places and meeting people and learning about what’s moving the city forward. The way it stands right now is that it might as well be run by bots. Actually for all I know and for all the interaction I actually had with the site, I might have been having an email conversation with a bot.
Immediately, I emailed the five artists that I had recommended, warning that this could be some kind of data scam. One of the five, dance and burlesque artist Jenn Freeman, replied:
…Definitely completed a survey with them early this summer. I thought something seemed odd. Ima ask that they pull my interview from their site.
Online comments were soon flying fierce in and between Boston and Chicago. Based on several conversations that I have initiated, there are now several theories about what’s going on:
Theory #1: Voyage Media is a content farm. They use artists’ responses to create fake social media profiles.
This is easy to do with the information and types of images they ask for: background story, profile picture, action/portfolio photos, events, advice for other artists, five friends.
Theory #2: Voyage Media is a bot farm. They are building a huge, monetizable data set that uses our personal information and our words.
As AI technology become more advanced, we may talk to humanlike bots every day. This is not always malicious. It might actually become common practice across industries. The problem is that we do not know what Voyage Media is or what they aim to do with the data they are collecting.
No matter how they acquired their data, Voyage Media is now likely to have information on a substantial percentage of artists and artist-entrepreneurs across eight major US cities. They have email addresses, many addresses and phone numbers, and many social media accounts. True, much of this information is publicly available. What Voyage Media has done, however, is aggregate it.
Voyage Media’s communications appear to be automated, but several of the artists that I spoke with told me that they had received a genuine response to the answers they offered on the questionnaire, mostly regarding typos and editing on the “stories” when published.
Theory #3: Voyage Media is a “self-branding Ponzi scheme” that aggregates content to drive traffic and therefore drive ad revenue.
It does feel nice to know that your peers recognize that your artistic work has value. It’s cool to grow audiences and donor bases. Unfortunately, this collection of websites seems non-searchable. Browsing them gives the visitor a whole lot of Instagram cleavage and not much more.
I should add that there’s a preferences link in the original email that I received that takes you to a page to opt out of future communications. The verbiage there reads:
We started Voyage Media in Los Angeles, with our flagship publication VoyageLA. After generating our first million page views in LA we knew our content was resonating with the community. We’ve since grown to a handful of other amazing cities with the help of an amazing network of friends, associates, local insiders and influencers, PR firms, local bloggers, artists, creatives, entrepreneurs and other professionals.
Theory #4: Voyage Media makes money from artists directly.
Through my network, I learned about a Chicago-based photographer, Lori Sapio, who posted on Facebook: “I was one of the first, was skeptical but went with it. So they offer you the chance to purchase the interview in print form. It’s a little money maker for them.”
Theory #5: Voyage Media is legit, well-intentioned and mismanaged.
Some colleagues whose interviews have run on Voyage’s sites are pleased. For example, dance maker Brigette Dunn-Korpela wrote: “I want to give a huge thank you to Sid Reddy and Voyagela for this amazing article!!! So honored!!! Thank you for creating a space to honor local artists!!”
But Dunn-Korpela would appear to be the exception, not the rule. In my research for this story, I came upon a Facebook comment by a writer, Lauren Lauter, who wrote: “My take is that Voyager is actually a young man from India (Siddharth “Sid” Reddy) who runs it on his own, lives in Los Angeles, and sees this as a start up business — probably making money from ads. Doesn’t know or perhaps care about art or artists and is trying to scale up the site as much as he can on his own. Whatever it is [a scam or not] — it’s ridiculous and weird, but perhaps not as shady as we think. I’d stay away.”
Who is “Sid” Reddy? It would appear to be a person with the handle “sidreddy88” who responded, at length, to the Reddit thread. The person with the handle claims to have founded Voyage Media and offers explanations for the litany of concerns contained in the comments on the thread: why the focus on artists and artist-entrepreneurs; why so many typos and grammatical errors; why they ask for five recommendations; why there’s no legit mailing address; why there are domain proxy issues; why the phone number and mailing addresses on ZoomInfo for at least one staff member — Naomi Hoke — is inaccurate. (I called the number. It connects to a bar in Chicago called The Violet Hour.)
Following the comments of “sidreddy88,” another person who identifies as a Voyage co-founder, Mayank (Mike) Bhandari, added a comment to the Reddit thread via “sidreddy88” because he claimed not to have a Reddit account. This comment took the form of a lengthy rebuttal of the litany of concerns and accusations around what Voyage Media is doing with all this data and information. First, Bhandari accused commenters of stoking “baseless fear mongering border [sic] on the line of xenophobia.” He added, “I can guarantee that I am a real person and that all the individuals who have contributed to Voyage are human as well. As we’ve said repeatedly, we do not use bots or any other automated tech that could be considered a bot or similar to a bot.” Finally, he characterized the company’s future plans to build a “vibrant community where people come together both online and in-person, including hosting events to showcase their artistic, creative and entrepreneurial strengths, create tutorials for people to learn new skills…”
Further down, Reddy added:
Voyage is not perfect. The people who contribute to its existence are not perfect. But, it is real and it is a good thing. We appreciate feedback, we don’t appreciate the outrageous accusations, but we do value your feedback and the feedback of others and we are trying our best to get better and better each day.
Then, another Reddit user, “JayNeely,” added a comment to defend Reddy, encouraging him explicitly to take legal action against various commenters for defamation and libel.
Notably, Reddy provided his email address and stated that he and his 40-member team work out of the Blankspaces shared workspace in LA. As of this writing, Reddy has not responded to a request for an interview.
So, have artists cause or standing to initiate legal action against Voyage Media? Artists would need to collect evidence of damages or misuse of the data. A friend of mine, Amy Keller, is an attorney who has insight into these types of cases. In a recent message she explained the following to me,
Individuals who’ve provided their data to companies under false pretenses may have a claim if those companies were only collecting that information for profit, data mining purposes, or—worse yet—for identity theft. Individuals who provide such data to online sources should be wary of potential false social profiles being created, and be vigilant in protecting their images, communications, and even personal credit.
If you have been contacted by, or have had an interview published by, Voyage Media, contact The Clyde Fitch Report as we follow up on this story.